We have not been back to Kolkata for more than two years. Not since before COVID. I was worried that the place would feel strange or distant, or that I would struggle in an attempt to recreate a feeling that I had in the past.
But it is not that way. Of course, this part of the world moves at a different tempo than where I am from. Its rhythms, sounds, food, smells and words are different. Even the light is different. But it is comfortable and friendly, and the people are generous once you get past the big-city anonymity and prickle.
Above all, it has been profound to reconnect with friends whom I have not seen in years, separated by thousands of miles and closed borders. And new friends whom I am meeting face-to-face for the first time after countless hours staring at their likeness on a computer screen.
Our Bengali is passable. It has been exciting, exhausting and humbling to stumble through interactions with the vocabulary and grammar of a child. I am in awe of all these people who function in three different languages everyday. The city is layered with proclamations in Bengali, Hindi and English.
Finally, to paraphrase what I would say in Bengali: In leaving, sadness comes.
Gosh I love to read! Every book is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective, to learn something from an expert, or to peer through a window to a different time and place. Here is a short list of books I read this year that had a profound impact on me. They are not new books. In fact, some of them are quite old. But they are all valid, and they meant a lot to me this year.
WHEN PROPHECY FAILS by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter
This work of social psychology from the 1950s dives into the mentality, actions and beliefs of a UFO cult. But it is so much more than that: an exploration of how our minds react when we may be wrong about something we really believe in. The authors build the case that, even when we are confronted with evidence that we are wrong, we essentially double-down in our beliefs. It is a chilling conclusion — that humans are sometimes immune to changing our minds. As the authors write, "when people are committed to a belief and a course of action, clear disconfirming evidence may simply result in deepened conviction". After reading this book, it is hard not to see this phenomenon all around us in the world today.
ETHICS IN THE REAL WORLD by Peter Singer
Ethics and morality have become especially important to me this year. Perhaps it is due to the ongoing pandemic and the acute awareness of how my actions can impact others. I stumbled upon this book, which contains 82 short essays about various ethical conundrums — from geopolitics to religious freedom, eating meat to climate change — and thought it would be a good overarching introduction. It is. Singer writes with remarkable clarity about ethical issues of all sorts. And the brevity of the essays means that nothing is belabored.
SELFLESS PERSONS by Steven Collins
This scholarly dive into the Buddhist concept of non-self is deep, complex and absolutely stunning. The idea that there is no eternal Self can be confounding and frustrating, especially when compared to other systems that insist upon its existence. The importance of non-self is summarized best in Collins's introduction: "this belief in a permanent and a divine soul is the most dangerous and pernicious of all errors, the most deceitful of illusions, that it will inevitably mislead its victim into the deepest pit of sorrow and suffering".
SEVEN TYPES OF ATHEISM by John Gray
I'm a sucker for an analysis of human spirituality in all its subtlety, diversity and contradiction. Gray's book does not disappoint. He begins by defining an atheist: "anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world...It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god". This leaves a lot of room for variation in beliefs about the nature of the universe, creation and human spirituality. Gray systematically explains seven distinct forms of atheism that have been embraced throughout history. A book of remarkable clarity and exposition that illuminates the ways we see ourselves and the world.
THE YOGASUTRA OF PATANJALI: A NEW INTRODUCTION TO THE BUDDHIST ROOTS OF THE YOGA SYSTEM by Pradeep P. Gokhale
I don't know how many different translations and explanations of the Yoga Sutras I have read. Dozens. Many are confused or confusing, and scholars are increasingly aware of the compiled nature of the text, and how it shows influence from a handful of other systems of thought. Buddhism is among these influences, but deep dives into the Buddhist roots of the Yoga Sutras require a rare combination of expertise. With this new research, Gokhale has provided a huge step forward in our understanding of the philosophical and linguistic roots of the Yoga Sutras. He analyzes works of Abhidharma Buddhism and shows how they explain many aspects of the Yoga Sutras better than traditionally accepted narratives. This is a scholarly work, full of difficult history and terminology, but worth it for anyone with a serious interest in yoga history or the Yoga Sutras in particular.
WHY WE SLEEP by Matthew Walker
This book was recommended to us by several people over the past few years until it became impossible to ignore. And it was worth it! We even wrote a blog about it. The book begins with the obvious-in-hindsight revelation that sleep is vital. It is not a passive state of nothingness that can be shortened or neglected. Rather, it is a very active state for many systems of the body, especially the brain. Walker explains the structure of sleep and its impact on things like our memory, physical health and even physical coordination. This is a book with practical, everyday implications that can make anyone's life better.
THE CHAKRAS by C.W. Leadbeater
Earlier this year, as we were doing research for a workshop series on the Yogic Body, we read a handful of books about the chakras from the early 20th century, including this one. Leadbeater was a prominent Theosophist, a highly influential group that shaped modern conceptions of yoga and spirituality. This book from 1927 is remarkable as a vivid capsule of the time. Leadbeater claimed that he could see the chakras, and he painted them beautifully. I find these paintings to be among the most remarkable elements of 20th century yogic history because, aside from being lovely, they show the break-neck speed of change in conceptions of the yogic body. Here, in the 1920s, there were seven chakras associated with parts of anatomy. But they were not yet rainbow in color nor linked with psychological traits as they came to be in the 1970s.
HOW JESUS BECAME GOD by Bart D. Ehrman
Along with our study of yoga history and the history of religion in general, both Ida and I have been increasingly reading about the history of Christianity. It is fascinating for the same reason as all history — our ideas change rapidly along with the cultural needs of the time. This book by Ehrman explores the early centuries after the death of Jesus, and how the story of Jesus changed, turning him from a preacher or even a prophet into the only son of God himself who rose from the dead. It is full of scriptural quotations and explanations alongside historical analysis. And it is quite readable, which is not something one can often say about a work of scholarship like this.
BREATH by James Nestor
I never thought someone could write a compelling story about breathing, something we all do thousands of times each day. But Nestor has crafted a surprisingly interesting narrative around his own research into breathing anatomy, physiology and history. Where it falls short of a scholarly history or a medical anatomy text, it more than makes up with its humor and readability. This is a book that anyone can and should read to have more understanding and appreciation of the most fundamental function of life — breathing.
Do I exercise to be healthy or to look a certain way? If being healthy meant looking unattractive, which would I choose? Or consider the question the other way around: if looking attractive meant being unhealthy, which would I choose?
Let's start with something simple: health. It is a big reason why I personally do physical exercises and make nutritional choices. Based on scientific as well as cultural knowledge, I believe that moving my body around — getting my heart rate up, maintaining the strength and mobility of my joints — will cause my life to be freer from pain, and perhaps even cause me to live longer and stay physically capable longer.
This leads us to two further inquiries: why do I want to be free of pain, and why do I want to live longer? The pain aspect is pretty straightforward, as every living being can feel pain and strives to avoid it. The question of longer life is more interesting, especially to a yogi. Do we want to live longer because of the important work we are doing? Or because we want to travel as much as possible? Or because we are afraid of not being alive anymore? These questions are worth considering in your own life.
Let's move on to a further implication of exercise and health: it generally causes the body to burn fat, build muscle, and be what is culturally accepted as attractive. Indeed, some conceptions of beauty consider that it is connected to health — that we are subconsciously attracted to healthy people because they will make more robust mates. It is probably a bit more complicated than that, as different eras and cultures find different qualities physically attractive. At the moment in the West, thin and athletic bodies are all the rage.
In my own physical practice, my purposes are health and function. Regardless of how my body ends up looking, I try to do the practices that will make me healthy. If it is healthy for me to have big shoulders and a big butt, I am fine with that. If the opposite is true — small shoulders and a small butt — I am fine with that too. I try not to focus on the aesthetic outcome of the practices, but rather the functional outcome.
Usually we write about yoga topics like anatomy, philosophy, history and such. Today we have a different purpose, because these are extraordinary times. This morning we got the first dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine.
In Northern Minnesota, about an hour from where we live, is a large vaccination site. It is in a curling arena, right next door to the National Hockey Hall of Fame. In the past few days, word began spreading that they were not filling the available appointments for vaccine shots. One day it was 30 slots that went unfilled, and yesterday it was 400, which is about half of the capacity of the site. So, in order to vaccinate as many people as possible, they encouraged anyone to make an appointment and come, regardless of age (as long as you're over 18, of course).
Scientific experts say that this pandemic will only end when the world reaches herd immunity. Vaccination plays a pivotal role in that goal. Leaders have also encouraged us to talk about getting vaccinated and post pictures, since some still fear or distrust vaccines or consider them pointless.
Throughout this pandemic, we have made an effort to listen to respected scientific leaders and follow their advice. We are relatively young and healthy, but it is clear that our actions affect others who are more vulnerable, including our own parents, grandparents and families. In order to do our part, we (like so many others) drastically changed our lives over the past year. We thought that we would have to wait until the summer to get the vaccine, due to our age and health histories. We were fortunate to have this opportunity to get vaccinated, and we took it! We hope that you and your loved ones (and everybody else too) gets vaccinated as soon as you can.
Over the last few months I’ve been compiling materials to research the forgotten women of yoga. Through work in Kolkata, I came to know of a few names of women, some quite famous, who today are completely forgotten. The questions started piling up— why do so many women do yoga when it was thrust into the modern age largely (at least publicly) by men.
Through gathering texts and doing interviews, the layers of complexity grew.
One unanticipated layer is the talk of beauty when it comes to women and yoga. This isn't found in posture manuals for men, and isn’t about “radiance” or something that could be referenced in Haṭha texts. This is talk of things like “perfect breasts” and “thin waists”.
This made me think of my own journey in the yoga studio so far. The "no food is good food" was certainly a part of the community. I remember being complimented the most in class when I was incredibly sick with pneumonia and hadn't been able to keep any food but applesauce down.
Around that same time I was also injured. My hamstring was tearing but I was locking out my standing bow. (Worth it? No.)
Since then I stopped wanting to be injured and took up weight training. When my new trainer gave me 15 pushups as a warm up I balked! I couldn’t do one, yet I was one of the strongest at my yoga studio.
I have since gained 15lbs. And with it, the strength to run many miles, move hundreds of pounds, do pull-ups, (more than 15) pushups and most importantly, have the strength to stay injury free.
Since talking about injuries in yoga studios around the world, we've gotten a variety of responses. Some burst into tears and ask, “So it shouldn’t hurt? I’ve spent a decade thinking it was supposed to.” Some just shake their heads, acknowledge how obvious it is that a "healing" practice shouldn’t injure the body. Others though, respond with the predictable, yet disappointing response of, “Well I’m not injured. You weren’t doing it right.” Denial is powerful.
All of this combined has me thinking. Are we trying to be healthy or beautiful? Who is deciding this? Do we actually know what we’re doing?
We are here in London, immersed in the study of Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. It is intense so far, with nearly every waking hour spent in reading, study or practice of some sort. A great relief from the constant reading is our study of the Bengali language. We chose this because it is the language spoken in Kolkata, where Ghosh's College is located. Every time we are in India, we pick up a little bit---we know how to say "how are you?", "go straight", "egg" and "french toast"!---but of course we wish we knew more. So we have embarked into proper study of the language, both reading and speaking.
The Bengali language, Bangla বাংলা, has its own alphabet. Which means that the first step is figuring out the sounds of each letter as well as the shape. Needless to say, the letters are quite different from the alphabet used in English, so we have to regress to the level of schoolchildren, drawing shapes over and over again on notepaper until we get it right. This is surprisingly calming and refreshing, especially after studying complex academic arguments in our other courses. In Bangla we get to be artists.
To an English speaker, there are some elements of Bangla that are quite confusing. For example, each consonant contains a vowel within it! So the letter 'n' is not just a consonant, but also contains a sound after, making it 'na'. This is true of all the letters, so the alphabet is made up of 'ka' 'ga' 'na' 'ma' 'ba', etc. If that seems confounding, welcome to the club! Luckily for us, we studied a bit of Sanskrit a couple years ago, and Sanskrit follows the same basic rules. So this wasn't new to us, which was a relief.
Once we get around the inherent differences in the logic of the language, it is really just a matter of getting used to the words, sounds and structures. I try to imagine myself as a 3 year old, listening to the sounds and repeating them until they work. I guess the difference here is that 3 year olds don't have an exam at the end of the term.
Bangla is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet, but it is often overshadowed by its fellow Indic language, Hindi. Hindi is more commonly used, but not by much. So we hope that improving our knowledge of Bangla will help us in our research---since the Indian libraries are full of books in Indic languages---as well as with our relationships and communication while we're in Kolkata.
Just for fun...some Sanskrit letters are similar to Bangla, some are different. Here are a few. On the left is Sanskrit, the right is Bangla.
a आ আ
ma म ম
na न ন
ba ब ব
la ल ল
ka क ক
ga ग গ
ha ह হ
pa प প
pha फ ফ
tha थ থ
As the year turns over, we quickly shift from looking backward---"what happened this year?"---to looking forward. I have mixed feelings about New Year's resolutions because they encourage us to be dissatisfied. It would be better to focus on contentment.
The more I practice, teach and study I am shocked by the way my mind changes. I see things so differently now than I did when I started learning about yoga years ago. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How could we possibly have clear vision or intention when we are beginning on a new path? Each bit of practical experience and insight necessarily changes our perspective.
Lately, I have been studying the Bhagavad-gita, and it is so clear which passages are speaking to my present situation: Actions should not be undertaken for the benefit of myself or my ego. When I say this out loud, it seems obvious and silly. But which of our actions are not designed to benefit ourselves?
When I say things so people understand my intelligence, I am serving my ego. When I eat the food I "like," I am serving my sensory desire. Even when I study and learn, am I doing it just to develop my sense of accomplishment and my ability to excel in the world?
It is increasingly important to me to recognize and subvert these thoughts and actions. Instead, my actions should be directed toward the service of others. The difficult part for me to understand is do I do this for the benefit of myself or other people? Even that dilemma is addressed in the Gita. One who performs apparently selfless actions for his own benefit is ignorant, while one who takes no credit and accepts no personal benefit is wise.
This is my goal: to serve with no agenda. To recognize the emergence of my ego and discard it, so my actions build the good of the world at large instead of just myself.
This blog was originally written in January 2019.
Anyone who has attended one of our classes knows we place great importance on knowing why we are doing what we're doing, whether it is stretching, strengthening, breathing, meditating or eating french fries. This also applies to being a teacher. Why do we/you teach yoga? What do we set out to accomplish, what do we actually accomplish, and is there any discrepancy between those two that can be improved?
We encourage you to respond or comment with your thoughts.
As I search my own motivations for teaching, I settle on a relatively simple answer: peace and happiness. These are the things I hope to bring to any students. My goal is at least to point them in the right direction.
It will come as no surprise that human existence is interwoven with suffering. Some suffering comes in the shape of desire: wanting things that we do not have and feeling that lack acutely. Some comes in the shape of fear: seeing the possibility for suffering and dreading it. Some comes as depression or stress, and some comes as outright physical pain in the body.
More than anything else I've experienced, the teachings and practices of yoga have reduced my suffering. Many physical pains have diminished, but mostly my mental state has improved, bringing contentment where there was dissatisfaction and peace where there was stress. I have become happier. These are the reasons I study and practice yoga; it has made my life better.
All around I interact with people who suffer because they are swept up in the chaos of the senses and mind. I talk with people who have goals and desires that bring them pain instead of happiness. And I see people who have injuries or physical pain in their bodies. Through it all, I see how the teachings of yoga could really help to ease the suffering of so many people.
The overwhelming activity and power of the mind is common in all humans. It is full of desire and fear, stress and imbalance. Learning about the mind and recognizing its tendencies is one of the fundamental principles of yoga. Over time we can see the activities of the mind as what they are instead of mistaking them for the deepest nature of ourselves.
All this is why I teach yoga. I see suffering that has a remedy. I would remiss if I did nothing. So I am compelled to teach.
It is Practice Week this week, and we are in Pennsylvania. The days are intense and draining: 5 hours of practice and another 3 hours of discussion. It is an all-out extravaganza for the body and mind. Needless to say, the end of the day finds us exhausted, and it only compounds over the course of the week.
But I have always been a morning person, and no matter how tired I am, I usually wake up early. I say this with no sense of pride; I would often choose to sleep later if I could. But once my internal clock decides it’s time to wake up, there is no way of returning to rest. So I get up.
My favorite thing to do in the morning, aside from doing breathing practices, is organize information. It is so quiet and peaceful, and my mind is full of new connections that were generated while I slept. I love to write down little bits of information that I’ve learned and questions I have. I read and research to find answers to my questions. Sometimes I gain a new sense of understanding.
This morning, I sat in the yoga room here in Pennsylvania before anyone else was up. I gathered pictures and bits of info and placed them into a slide presentation. I rearranged their order until a coherent story appeared. I looked up, saw myself in the mirror and realized that this is a pattern with me: rise early and organize information.
As the summer settles in, our teaching schedule lightens up. Ida and I don't travel as much or teach as many workshops during the warm months of the year. Inevitably this time away from teaching leads me to explore new areas of study and curiosity.
During the fall, winter and spring our schedule can be overwhelming and it is difficult to embrace new ideas. I may have an interesting conversation, learn about a new book or get a mind-boggling question that sparks my spirit of inquiry. But due to the requirements of travel and teaching those inquiries get put on hold until a later date. The procrastination and patience are important as we focus on the tasks at hand, but they can be frustrating too. Now, with the summer, the time has arrived to explore.
The questions arise in me again and again: How can I be a good yogi and also a good person? Where is the balance between learning, knowing and teaching? How can I take responsibility for myself, my communities and environment while still staying humble?
These are the questions that agitate me on a daily basis. I welcome any of your thoughts or insights.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
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- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Origins of Standing Bow
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- Through Bishnu's Eyes
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice